Today, many police officers are playing significant roles in fighting the opioid addiction crisis. They are often the first on scene for an overdose or drug-related accident or injury and they help open doors for people with substance abuse disorders and legal issues to find the treatment they need. They have also seen some of the worst effects of substance abuse and addiction: tragic accidents, families torn apart, and children left without parents.
For approximately one in four police officers, substance abuse is even more personal, with alcohol, cannabis, stimulants, and prescription pain medications typically reported as police officers’ drugs of choice. Some studies have found that police officers were 200 percent more likely than the general population to have an alcohol addiction. A survey of police officers in three Texas cities showed that 30 percent of officers reported consuming more than ten alcoholic beverages each week.
A shocking 15 percent of police officers report that drug or alcohol use has affected their work performance. A five-year nationwide longitudinal study found that there were 221 drug arrests involving police officers and 782 drunk driving arrests among law enforcement. Of these, 64 percent of officers arrested on drug charges were using substances while on duty, while 14 percent of those arrested for drunk driving were intoxicated while on the clock. Police and drug abuse and alcohol abuse are thus more common than people may think.
Why Is Substance Abuse Common Among Police?
At first, it might be difficult to understand how someone who is supposed to uphold and enforce the law may become entangled in illicit drug use or alcohol addiction. After all, police officers are held to a high ethical standard and are often seen as role models for the community. There are several factors that increase the risk of substance abuse among law enforcement officers.
Physically Demanding Nature of Police Work
Being a police officer is physically demanding work. Officers often work long hours, carrying heavy equipment or driving for hours at a time in a patrol car. They might also be injured on the job, either via gunshot wound or injuries to the back or neck from years of physical exertion. The officers may legally obtain prescriptions for pain medication from their doctors but ultimately turn to opioid abuse as a way to cope with their chronic pain.
Police officers rarely have a typical and predictable 9 to 5 work schedule. In fact, rotating shifts are common. Officers may work several consecutive days of ten-hour to twelve-hour shifts, followed by several days off. They may work a night shift, only to come back and work a day shift the next afternoon. They may be unable to sleep between shifts or on their days off due to disruptions in the body’s sleep-wake cycle or due to on-the-job stressors, leading to an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and physical health problems.
Stress and Trauma
Law enforcement officers put their lives in danger nearly every day. They often deal with encounters that are stressful, life-threatening, dangerous, or traumatic. On a single shift, they may pull a severely injured child out of a car mangled by an accident, stop an armed robbery, and calm a suicidal individual. They often respond to calls not knowing if they will be ambushed upon arrival or travel to scenes where dangerous events are already occurring. Their level of job-related stress is significantly high.
Approximately 15 percent of officers have some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from on-the-job trauma. It is estimated that police officers will experience an average of 188 critical incidents over the course of their careers, including witnessing deaths, having to injure or kill a civilian, and participating in situations that threaten their own lives.
Culture and Stigma
In many police departments, there is an underlying culture of self-medicating to relieve the symptoms of trauma and stress, in large part due to the stigma associated with seeking help. Talking about emotions and feelings regarding a stressful call, traumatic experience, or just day-to-day work may be seen as a sign of weakness. Tragically, the suicide rate among law enforcement officers is higher than the suicide rate in the general public, a sign of the high level of stress, trauma, and resulting mental illness police officers face.
Hesitation to seek assistance may occur because officers fear losing their jobs or receiving disciplinary action. As a result, they may seek support from each other, going out to bars after work or drinking at home with fellow officers to relieve stress. This leads to the acceptance and encouragement of using alcohol as a tool to self-medicate.
Signs of Substance Abuse in Police
Because of the often-chaotic nature of police work and the culture of suppressing emotions and not letting what happened on one call impact the rest of the shift, it can be difficult to spot if a colleague is abusing drugs or alcohol. There are some signs that may raise some red flags:
- Frequently arriving late for work
- Unusual aggression or irritability
- Using excessive force in situations
- Careless paperwork mistakes
- Poor decision-making on the job
- Decrease in work performance
- Sneaking drugs from a crime scene
- Hiding bottles of pills or alcohol at work
- Memory loss or blackouts
- Lack of focus
- Unusual or frequent vehicular accidents
Risks of Substance Use in Police
Like other first responders, police officers are responsible for making split-second decisions that may have life-or-death consequences. Therefore, when police and addiction issues impair an officer’s abilities to think and react, the consequences may be significant.
Officers frequently work as a team, and when responding to a dangerous situation, each officer’s actions can impact the other officers at the scene. For example, an officer with a slowed reaction time may not be able to stop a gunman before he injures or kills another officer. Officers who are driving while drunk may crash their police cruisers, injuring or killing themselves along with accompanying officers, citizens in the back seat, or citizens who are pedestrians or driving other vehicles.
In some cases, impaired judgment may also lead to escalating violence during an encounter with a citizen. The officer might be unable to judge the level of risk in a situation, using force when unnecessary or using excessive force.
Substance abuse also poses risks to entire police departments. When a law enforcement officer is arrested for breaking the law, especially due to alcohol or drug-related reasons, the reputation of the entire department is damaged. A public scandal can arise, especially if the officer has a history of excessive use of force or poor decision-making.
Changing the Culture to Encourage Recovery
To help combat the increasing numbers of police officers affected by PTSD, substance abuse, mental health issues, and suicide, former U.S. president Barack Obama initiated the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. In 2015, this task force outlined ways to
- Protect officers from the physical and psychological repercussions of their work
- Curb levels of police-involved shootings
- Change police culture
The task force’s findings encourage departments to offer training to officers on how to deal with addiction, not only among citizens, but also in themselves and in their colleagues. In addition, the task force suggested that departments should focus on reducing work shifts to improve mental health and decrease the risk of sleep deprivation, implement mental health programs that address stress and trauma specific to police work, and encourage safety and wellness at all levels of the department.
Finally, the task force encouraged federal research into mental health issues that are specific to police work in order to develop specific recommendations for reducing the risk of alcohol abuse and suicide among officers. The task force recommended researching the efficacy of annual mental health physicals, alongside fitness and physical health checkups in detecting new mental health and substance abuse disorders quickly.
Individual police departments may also work to create a culture of health and safety for their officers by encouraging those affected by mental illness, trauma, or addiction to seek help without fear of losing their job. Police chiefs may take the lead in helping to reduce the stigma of seeking help, ensuring that all officers have confidential and judgment-free access to mental healthcare, especially following traumatic or difficult calls. Departments may also implement programs that give officers access to recreational and relaxation opportunities during their shifts, such as meditation, acupuncture, or yoga.
If you or a colleague are experiencing alcohol or drug addiction, it is important to seek help. The right rehab facility can help you beat your addiction while giving you the tools you need to address work-related trauma and stress. As someone who has seen the very worst consequences of addiction in others, you know firsthand the dangers of drugs and alcohol. If you are a member of the police and rehab assistance is an option, remember that it may give you a good chance of defeating your addiction and beginning a new, clean, and healthy life.
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Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.
Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.